Review: “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” returns the series to simpler fun of the first film

in Disney, Movies, Reviews

As the fourth installment in the series, “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” brings adventure back to the big screen. With a smaller budget and cast, its tight-knit story, more subtle humor, and focus on its biggest stars delivers a movie that will entertain and amuse those who have stuck with the “Pirates” series despite a few bumps along the way.

The first “Pirates of the Caribbean” film (“The Curse of the Black Pearl”) was a smash success, with Johnny Depp’s eccentric role as Captain Jack Sparrow leading the way in turning a classic Disney theme park attraction into a worldwide film phenomenon. The two sequels that followed (“Dead Man’s Chest” and “At World’s End”) did so in true Hollywood style, with a bigger budget, larger cast, and more special effects, raking in millions more at the box office. But while the profit made was big enough to excite any treasure seeker, it came at a cost. The first “Pirates” film is widely regarded as the best in the series, with the two sequels confusing many audiences with winding stories of pirate lords and voodoo spanning across both films.

But “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” takes the series back to where it began, with a smaller cast leading viewers through a much simpler story. Don’t take “smaller” and “simpler” as negatives. They’re quite the opposite, allowing viewers to sit back and follow along as Captain Jack seeks out the Fountain of Youth.

And “On Stranger Tides” is indeed the story of Captain Jack Sparrow. While the supporting main cast of Hector Barbossa (Geoffery Rush), Angelica (Penelope Cruz), and the infamous Edward “Blackbeard” Teach (Ian McShane) are fantastic, they are indeed supporting the antics of Depp’s Sparrow. Nearly every scene and story branch features Sparrow, either alone or playing alongside others, which is decidedly a good thing, as he’s exactly who audiences flock to “Pirates” films to see. Though admittedly Barbossa is as important to the “Pirates” saga as Sparrow, receiving plenty of screen time following a fun twist to his ongoing story arc, beginning with audiences wondering how he could possibly have wound up serving as captain of a king’s navy, a far stretch from piracy.

Surprisingly, the majority of the pirate crew seen in the previous three films is absent. Only Gibbs, Sparrow’s right-hand man, returns to this film, with the rest of the regulars replaced by Captain Blackbeard’s crew. These new roles support the story but are entirely forgettable. Only one of the new crew characters sticks out, but not always for the right reasons.

Also absent from “On Stranger Tides” are Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley). Assumed to be living happily ever after, their absence is not missed. Amidst the rough looking pirates, two young, attractive stars stand out. Sam Claflin plays the clergyman Phillip and Astrid Berges-Frisbey plays the intriguing mermaid Syrena. Both roles are important to the story, but ultimately minor, leaving the big moments to the big players.

The story of “On Stranger Tides” is the definition of adventure. Sparrow is following in the legendary footsteps of Ponce de Leon, seeking the famous Fountain of Youth. But in his fairly non-chalante quest, he quickly discovers he’s not the only one looking for it, as other interested parties visibly show their determination to be the first to reach it, each with his or her own reason. But to activate the Fountain’s magical properties, certain important items are needed and therein lies the bulk of the film’s adventure. It is a series of quests, each with its own trials.

In search of these important items, Sparrow is both pitted against and teamed up with his adversaries, depending on the immediate goal at hand. And, naturally, he approaches each situation with his trademark brand of humor. But not to worry, the slapstick humor that sent Sparrow running through the jungle tied to a giant fruit skewer in “Dead Man’s Chest” is completely absent from “On Stranger Tides.” In its place are plenty of one-liners and genuinely funny moments, none of which are groan-worthy. Some exchanges between Sparrow and Angelica (Depp and Cruz) are so witty and fast-spoken that many jokes might be missed entirely if audiences aren’t paying attention to every spoken word. And audiences need not worry about understanding Cruz’ dialogue spoken in her thick Hispanic accent. Ironically if anyone is difficult to understand it’s Depp, with many of his lines spoken like a true rum-soaked pirate.

While slapstick humor may have disappeared from this “Pirates” installment, bizarre circumstances are plenty. There are unexplained supernatural elements to be found throughout the film. But they can easily be brushed off in the spirit of adventure (or… perhaps more implied voodoo). Only one or two of Jack Sparrow’s infamous escape plans are overly outrageous, involving high-flying acrobatics only a monkey could achieve. (Then again, the monkey’s name is Jack, isn’t it?)

Visually, “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” feels intimate. While the biggest scenes feature crowds of a hundred or so, the majority of the film focuses in on small groups of characters, with some scenes relying completely on Depp’s talent to hold the audience’s attention on his own. Settings are easily interchanged, with nearly every scene set in a jungle, ship, cave, or on a beach. Special effects are few and far between, making them even more impressive by being used sparingly (unlike the overabundance of them in the previous two “Pirates” films).

“On Stranger Tides” is the first of the series to be shot and shown in 3D, a fun but ultimately unnecessary addition. The film looked better than most in 3D and did offer a few “wow” moments, but most were fleeting and forgettable. If given the choice, a 2D screening is likely preferred, offering a clearer view with less eye strain.

Out of the four “Pirates of the Caribbean” films thus far (and there’s sure to be more), “On Stranger Tides” easily slides into the second best. Nothing will top the first for originality, but this new film comes close to matching its simple senses of excitement and humor driven by Captain Jack, one of the most entertaining and unique characters to recently be introduced to the silver screen. And with a few references to the Disney ride the series is loosely based on, “On Stranger Tides” makes it clear that a pirate’s life is for everyone.

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